When it comes to year-end holiday music, there are no Chosen People. Everybody suffers. A cynic could say that at this time of year, we’re all Jews.
There isn’t quite the glut of cheesy Hanukah music that there is for Christmas, but beyond the joke songs and the reggae records, it’s usually pretty awful. That’s why it’s cool that singer Sarah Aroeste, one of the world’s great advocates for Ladino music, has released what she calls the first-ever all-Ladino Hanukah record, streaming at Bandcamp.
This is refreshingly edgy music, with flamenco, and Andalucian, and Middle Eastern influences, as you would expect from the Sephardic tradition. Aroeste has really gone deep into the repertoire and unearthed a playlist of material from past decades as well as past centuries. Aroeste’s vocals are also remarkably easy to sing along to: if you know Spanish, Ladino is a lot less challenging than, say, Yiddish or Hebrew.
And the band are killer. Who would have expected a biting, brass-fueled shamstep Hanukah song? Or for a Hanukah album to open with a sizzling oud taqsim? That’s Yaniv Taichman spiraling around before Aroeste raises her voice in celebration, with a melody that seems to owe more to the Holy Land than to anywhere in Europe.
Israeli crooner Shuky Shveiky sings and plays fierce flamenco guitar on a Gipsy Kings-style take of Ocho Kandelikas, one of the best-known Ladino Hanukah songs. The first of two Aroeste originals is the acoustic guitar-driven minor-key singalong Fiesta de Hanuka. The second, Vayehi Mikets is a bouncy number based on an ancient parody: in this version, Joseph is contemplating pastries rather than the raw materials that Pharaoh put him in charge of.
Aroeste duets with songwriter Gloria Joyce Ascher on a sly reggae version of her joyous Ya Viene Hanuká! The family-friendly take of Flory Jagoda’s Hanuka, Hanuka is closer to dhaanto than reggae – but, hey, Ethiopia and Eritrea are the original Jewish stomping ground.
There’s also a cheery classical guitar-and-vocal tune by contemporary Israeli Ladino poet Medi Koen-Malki; a soaring Ladino version of Ma’oz Tzur set to a stately melody by eighteenth century Venetian composer Benedetto Giacomo Marcello; and a version of Dak il Tas with some spiky santoor from Eitan Refua. You get some history and culture with this album too.